Online Video Grows Up in the Shadow of Katrina

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By: Mike Shields

What the Gulf War did for cable, Hurricane Katrina may have done for online video. Characterized as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, Katrina coverage undoubtedly lifted online video?s profile to new heights.

Hurricane video shattered streaming records for nearly every major news organization?s Web site during the week of Aug. 29, when the devastating storm first slammed into the Gulf Coast. For example, 4.6 million users streamed nearly 50 million videos on MSNBC.com that week, three times the number streamed on 9/11, the previous record holder. Similarly, 3.3 million users played 36.6 million videos on CNN.com, including over 9 million streams on Aug. 29 alone. A single video showing footage of the Superdome disaster was viewed by 1.8 million viewers alone.

Other news sites, ranging from FoxNews.com to ABCNews.com, to local news sites in the South, all broke streaming records.

The inherent visual drama of the story, its timing, and the increasing maturity of the medium led to Katrina being one of the most-watched events in the Web?s history. ?The reason is that this a story that needed to be felt as much as it needs to be written,? explained Mitch Gelman, senior vp, executive producer of CNN.com.

And as reporters on the ground kept uncovering story after story, there was plenty to watch, unlike recent news events such as the London subway bombings. ?There was a new event with Katrina every day,? said Charlie Tillinghast, MSNBC.com publisher and acting editor in chief. ?People at work wanted to see this stuff ASAP.?

Indeed, most Katrina news unfolded over a Monday-through-Friday period, so millions of office workers flocked to the Web. And unlike 9/11, when many news sites essentially froze up, technical problems were few with Katrina, since most sites have since invested heavily in server technology.

Plus, with broadband penetration reaching new heights, sites have made video a priority. ?We made a very conscious decision before the Iraq War to keep video free,? said Betsy Morgan, senior vp and general manager of CBSNews.com. ?We?ve had a great experience of learning over the past few years.?

Also different from 9/11 and the opening of the Iraq war was that for Katrina most sites left ads running. Only MSNBC.com made the decision to pull ads in favor of relief messages.

But more significant than the short-term ad impact is what Katrina will mean for Web video long term. ?I believe that with every big event, you get these new eyeballs, and you retain a percentage of them,? said Bert Solivan, executive vp of Fox Interactive Media.
Added Eric Valk Peterson, vp, media director for Agency.com, ?What the sites are hoping is that it turns those breaking news users into routine video users.?

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